April 23, 2007

Experts Weigh-In on Ethiopia

Print More

“Ethiopia is both a country of great cultural achievement and racial denial,” said Ali Mazrui during his keynote lecture at a symposium on Ethiopia last Friday at the Africana Studies and Research Center. But to what extent is this statement true? Is it possible to be culturally prosperous while denying one’s heritage? During the symposium, experts on Ethiopian culture debated this controversial subject with intellectual gurus gathered from around the world.
The purpose of the symposium was to collect a group of experts who could provide insight and criticism on such topics as western imaging of Ethiopia and past and present concepts of modernity, xenophobia, religion, famine and war. Scheduled speakers presented their perspective, and audience members were given the oppurtunity to ask questions and address statements made by each speaker with which they were dissatisfied. The speakers and spectators included distinguished professors, directors, authors, publishers, researchers and chancellors.
Day one of the symposium began with an introduction by Prof. James Turner, Africana studies. Turner quickly grazed over his own experiences as a youth traveling in Ethiopia before introducing Mazrui.
Turner said, “There is no perfect introduction for Ali, all you can do is manage the imperfection, and hope that he accepts it.” He added with a laugh, “we can’t cover all he is, has been and continues to be. He has written over twenty books and that number has probably risen to thirty within the past two minutes.”
Aside from his writing accolades, Mazrui has been an integral faculty member at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda, the University of Michigan, Binghampton University, Jomo Kenyata University and the University of Guyana, where he has published his own work and contributed research to the scholarly work of his peers.
For the purposes of the symposium, Muzrui focused on one key issue: the confusing contrast between cultural achievement and cultural denial of the Ethiopian people.
“Western images portray Ethiopian people as a people without history, without poetry, without philosophy and without science,” Mazrui said.
He noted influential persons in American history such as Thomas Jefferson, whose 1784 quote reads, “Never yet would I find that a black man had uttered a thought above the level of music…”
In 1928 General Trevor Ropa made a similar derogatory statement regarding the history of Africa.
“Maybe in the future,” Ropa said, “there will be African history, but for the moment there is none, only European history, the rest is darkness and darkness is not history.”
From this point, Mazrui moved forward to disprove the four most common degradations of Ethiopians through the plethora of Ethiopian achievements in architecture, literature, theatre and indisputable records of Ethiopian history. Additionally, Mazrui pointed out that such achievements, such as the opera Aida, have had a great influence on classics like Othello and Romeo and Juliet.
However, Mazrui said that these achievements were overshadowed for many years by Ethiopian “denial of blackness.” Mazrui explained that the denial of culture stemmed largely from the influence of a Ethiopian language linked closely to Hebrew and Arabic. The linguistic connection, along with the tendencies of monarchs and nobility to associate with the Middle East, Europe and Egypt, made it more difficult for Ethiopians to perceive themselves within an exclusively national context. It was not until the 1920s, when Emperor Haile Selassie gained power and essentially made Ethiopia the center of Africa, that Ethiopians came to be culturally aware of their own achievements and “blackness.”
The post-speech discussion opened the floor to the experts, some supporting Mazrui’s opinions and others refuting their accuracy, but all bringing intellectual fervor to the symposium.
Overall, attendees said that the symposium brought a diversity of knowledge to Cornell that would have been otherwise unobtainable through classroom lectures. Sonia Haerizadeh ’09, a nutrition major currently researching Ethiopia, said, “Having symposiums like this make what I’m learning in class seem more real and brings what I’m reading about on paper to life. I think it would be a great idea to have more symposiums to make Cornell an even more well rounded cultural community.”
Marcel van Eeden ’09, a South African student, reflected similar wishes regarding the need for understanding of African cultures.
“Most people don’t know enough about Africa, they only associate it with AIDS and poverty. Things like this [symposium] will help more people understand the realities of the culture which goes beyond safaris and disease.”